Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Struggle Goes Global

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Struggle Goes Global

Article excerpt

With economic and social rights now on the agenda, many new players have emerged alongside older human rights organizations. In South Korea, women are speaking out about their working conditions, and in Great Britain the homeless and badly-housed are voicing demands

While the universality of human rights is increasingly challenged, a growing number of activists is formally rejecting any attempt to water down the principle with claims of cultural relativism. The battle for human rights has become universal.

"The United Nations conference in Vienna in June 1993 shed light on a movement that had been gathering momentum since the late 1980s and confirmed the emergence of local players," says Antoine Bernard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights, whose membership rose from 66 in 1991 to 105 in 1997.

The gatherings held by non-governmental organizations (NGO) on the fringes of five United Nations conferences between 1992 and 1995 brought to light another major trend: the proliferation of women's movements. They argue that women account for half the world's population and must have the same rights as men. Their priority is fighting the discrimination and violence women endure everywhere in the world. So the community of human rights activists has integrated new, previously marginalized players at the same time that the movement has become global.

In Africa, Latin America, Europe and, most recently, Asia, the collapse or weakening of repressive regimes has been fertile ground for a new crop of human rights organizations. At first they were national human rights groups and local branches of Amnesty International. Today they are more than just offshoots of large organizations based in the countries of the North. An often impressive number of home-grown groups has taken up where international organizations left off as economic and social changes spawn the need for new forms of solidarity.

Ayo Obe, the Nigerian chairwoman of the Civil Liberties Organisation, says foreign aid and cash helped launch such groups. But today activists, many of them volunteers, are legion. Their primary objectives are to "improve society," to make up for the lack of government action and to fight discrimination, damage to the environment and state-inspired violence. Those goals are shared by most African countries which have seen the most spectacular growth of human rights organizations.

Previously underground and exiled activists laid the groundwork for the proliferation of human rights groups in the late 1980s."The human rights movement in Latin America was already quite advanced before the dictatorships fell, but it was politically confrontational and centred on large organizations," says Bernard. "Today groups are highly diverse and do a lot of in-depth work, especially to raise awareness of the law."

In the former communist countries, the human rights movement has also grown by leaps and bounds since the Berlin wall fell in 1989. "As soon as the Soviet empire showed the first evident signs of collapse, numerous NGOs sprang up all over the USSR," says Boris Pustintsev, chairman of Citizens Watch.

While the first generation of human rights groups "resisted government's attempts to curb the democratization process," says Pustintsev, the second wave has focused mainly on limiting the damage caused by the ensuing social crisis. In Eastern Europe, as yesterday's dissidents moved into positions of power, civil society was left without its best defenders. Grassroots initiatives did not pick up again until two or three years ago. …

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